Lessons in Innovation from the First “On-Line”

Recently, I read two books on innovation with two entirely different approaches. The first, Change by Design, was a disappointment even though it is the better known of the two. It actively sells the concept of innovative design. The second, The Victorian Internet, provides greater insights into the process of innovation and the pitfalls of new technologies through a historical context. It tells “the remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth century’s on-line pioneers.”

You would think that the book written by the CEO of the legendary innovation consultancy, IDEO, would be a better read. Thus, Tim Brown‘s Change by Design comes with very high expectations. Unfortunately, the book falls short mostly because of its extensive promotion of his company and an overly positive opinion of innovation and design. It left me wondering, can inventing products and services really be this good? What challenges exist beneath all of these benefits?

Tim Brown is of course not alone. Many CEO’s write books to promote their companies, clients, and methodologies. But do these CEO’s write well? Do they take a tough, critical look at business problems? Not really. Many take the easier road of promoting what they know. I’d imagine that is why Peter Drucker, the legendary business author and management consultant, gave a surprising answer to a question from a journalist at FORTUNE Magazine. When asked, “What business books do you read?” Drucker responded with, “I don’t read business books. I read Shakespeare.”

When I finished Change by Design, strangely, very little of the book stayed with me. This reminded me of the lessons from Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, one of the very few business books that I’ve actually read twice and recommend to all of my friends. The Heath brothers outline a six-step process that ensures that your ideas are remembered, which spells S.U.C.C.E.S.s – Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Stories.

In contrast to Change by Design, Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet provided far greater insights about innovation. It told concrete, surprising (unexpected), credible, emotional stories that really stuck with me. The book describes how the inventors of the time came up with the first telegraph, updated the technology over the years and solved the myriad problems that arose from this new product category.

Every technology has a few leading innovators, in this case William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in the U.K. and Samuel Morse in the U.S. But Standage also tells the story of the constant tinkering and experimenting of a wide group of lesser-known experts around the world that moved the technology forward. I especially liked how The Victorian Internet highlighted the challenges that arose in innovation and the lessons learned that surprisingly parallel those of the dot com boom. By studying events that parallel our own time, but without the emotional attachment, we can better equip ourselves to look around corners and prepare for the future.

In conclusion, following are two quotes from The Victorian Internet that today’s Internet executives and social media “experts” may benefit from.

On page 104:
Unfortunately, the social impact of the global telegraph network did not turn out to be so straightforward. Better communication does not necessarily lead to a wider understanding of other points of view; the potential of new technologies to change things for the better is invariably overstated, while the ways in which they will make things worse are usually unforeseen.

And on pages 212-213:
Given a new invention, there will always be some people who see only its potential to do good, while others see new opportunities to commit crime or make money. We can expect exactly the same reactions to whatever new inventions appear in the twenty-first century.

Such reactions are amplified by what might be termed chronocentricity – the egotism that one’s own generation is posed on the very cusp of history. Today, we are repeatedly told that we are in the midst of a communications revolution. But the electric telegraph was, in many ways, far more disconcerting for the inhabitants of the time than today’s advances are for us. If any generation has the right to claim that it bore the full bewildering, world-shrinking brunt of such revolution, it is not us – it is our nineteenth-century forebears.

And here’s a video preview of The Victorian Internet.

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